Depression hits half the population

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Just one day after Norway was ranked as the best country in the world in which to live comes news that roughly half of all Norwegians will suffer depression or anxiety at some point in their lives. Psychiatric ailments have taken over as the country’s most widespread, and expensive, in the health care sector.

It’s a paradox of sorts: This year’s United Nations Human Development report,released on Monday, claims that Norwegians enjoy the highest life expectancy, literacy and income potential in the world. That apparently doesn’t mean they’re happy.

Depression and anxiety are the new folkesykdom , or national illnesses, say researchers at the state public health institute Folkehelseinstituttet . In a report issued this week, the institute claims that mental health problems are also costing society dearly because they can crop up early in life, often lead to long-term sick leave and expensive treatment programs. Patients also can suffer relapses, because of the chronic nature of their illness.

The study notes how alarmingly common diagnoses of depression and anxiety ( angst ) have become in Norway: They are the main cause of around a third of all sick leaves, affecting at least 100,000 persons at any given time.

“There’s no single factor that can clarify why so many suffer depression,” division director Arne Holte of the health institute told newspaper Aftenposten . There are many factors that can put people at risk, he noted, and it’s when they build up that people can get sick.

Holte also stressed that Norwegians don’t necessarily suffer more depression than people in other countries. The World Health Organisation is also ringing alarms on a global basis, pointing out that depression robs people of healthy years more than any other illness in the western world.

“But we are more aware of depression in Norway and there’s greater acceptance of it than elsewhere,” Holte said. “Moreover, the quality of life, joy and satisfaction are relatively independent of wealth, as long as you don’t live in one of the world’s poorest countries.”

Money doesn’t buy happiness, in other words, but plenty of it is being pumped into the health care sector. Norway’s psychiatric programs are often the target of criticism, and the health care sector is routinely accused of offering insufficient care. Holte reports that the government nonetheless has been investing heavily in mental health, spending as much as NOK 30 billion (about USD 5 billion) over the past 10 years to improve psychiatric health care.

He noted, however, that psychiatric illness are costing as much as NOK 70 billion every year, and the amount is rising.